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Battle looms over chicken waste

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) _ Arkansas farmer Gene Pharr scoffs at suggestions that chicken droppings are hazardous and he fears a lawsuit targeting the industry could put the waste on par with industrial solvents, pesticide remnants and old car batteries.

Decades of spreading chicken waste on the Ozark Mountains have turned the region a lush green, but a federal court lawsuit filed by Oklahoma's attorney general could stop the practice and, according to Pharr, gut an industry that has for 75 years helped transform an isolated region into a vital part of the economy.

``We could see the loss of this industry to this country,'' said Pharr, whose 125,000 chickens at his farm in Lincoln in northwestern Arkansas are but a fraction of the region's $2 billion industry.

But Oklahoma's attorney general, Drew Edmondson, sees it another way. He remembers that, as a college student in Tahlequah he could stand chest-high in the Illinois River and still see his toes.

``I've seen it change,'' Edmondson said. ``It's nice to have green land. It's not so nice to have green rivers.''

Last month, he sued 14 Arkansas poultry companies _ including three run by Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer _ accusing them of tainting Oklahoma waters with the so-called litter from millions of chickens and turkeys.

Edmondson says phosphorous from the litter fuels algae growth that reduces the clarity of rivers and streams, depletes oxygen and can kill certain populations of fish. Oklahoma's lawsuit seeks money to clean up the Illinois and is using the same South Carolina law firm that handled lawsuits against tobacco companies.

``The poultry industry is not the tobacco industry and poultry litter is not a hazardous waste,'' said Janet Wilkerson of Peterson Farms, a spokeswoman for the companies being sued. The farmers have banded together as a group called ``Poultry Partners'' in an effort to have a voice they say they didn't have in previous litigation.

``We haven't said anything for a long time and that was the worst thing we could do. We have quietly gone about our business,'' Wilkerson said. ``We need to tell our story and we have a good story to tell.''

The poultry industry has indeed been good for the economy of northwestern Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Tyson is a Fortune 100 company that had $26.4 billion in revenue last year, and thousand of people work in the industry _ from hatcheries to slaughterhouses to processing plants.

According to the lawsuit, Arkansas has 2,363 chicken houses in the Illinois River watershed while Oklahoma has 508. The chickens add phosphorus waste equivalent to 10.7 million people per year, Edmondson says.

Poultry companies say Edmondson is ignoring phosphorus added to the water by a growing population. But while the region is rapidly expanding _ the Milken Institute rated it as the nation's No. 1 economic growth region in 2003 _ it still has well fewer than 1 million people.

Peterson Farms suffered most after the city of Tulsa sued in 2002 over pollution in the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed. Peterson was left responsible for the largest share after the case was settled in a decision the company now regrets.

``We thought that it was a huge lawsuit and it could have a bankrupted us and it could have gone on forever. Had we gotten a runaway verdict, Peterson wouldn't be here today,'' said Kerry Kinyon, Peterson's vice president of operations and former chief operating officer.

But in the Tulsa case, the city received only $200,000 of the $7.5 million settlement, with the bulk going to lawyers. Edmondson says Oklahoma's contract with lawyers in the latest case states that fees and expenses won't toll more than 50 percent.

At the point where the Illinois River crosses from Arkansas into Oklahoma, phosphorus levels rose from the mid-1990s until 2003, when there was a 12 percent drop in the five-year average, according to water monitoring for the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission.

The drop came a year after Oklahoma imposed its first numerical standard for scenic river quality _ 0.037 milligrams of phosphorus per liter of water.

Arkansas environmental authorities say a concerted effort has led to decreases in phosphorus levels, but J.D. Strong, chief of staff for Oklahoma's secretary of environment, said the dip is largely attributable to an abnormal dry spell that meant less runoff from farms.

``We know that 80 to 90 percent of the phosphorous that travels down that river occurs in a handful of rainfall events,'' Strong said. National Weather Service records show that, this year, average rainfall amounts in the region are 6 to 8 inches below normal.

Attempts to have animal waste declared a noxious substance has been used in court before. In Texas, the city of Waco, alarmed by phosphorus levels in the North Bosque River, is using the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act to fight dairies.

The Oklahoma lawsuit is generating hard feelings. Arkansas state Rep. Mike Kenney, R-Siloam Springs, said his town may cut services provided to West Siloam Springs, Okla., if it must spend more to improve water quality.

``It seems the Oklahoma attorney general is set on dismantling an industry,'' Kenney said. ``Over time, because of litigation, the cost of doing business will be driven up and I think you will see the industry move to Central America or Asia and we will regulate ourselves out of business.''

Edmondson says he wants the companies, not the farmers, to pay for the cleanup. But Bev Saunders, who raises broilers with her husband on their Colcord, Okla., farm and manages the Poultry Partners group, said her family's future is tied to Peterson Farms, the small company they serve.

``If the companies don't survive, we don't survive,'' she said. ``If we don't survive, it could have a drastic impact on America's food supply.''
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